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I must’ve been in my late-30s when we pulled the minivan into a Cracker Barrel for lunch during our annual family trip to the Jersey Shore. After finishing the main meal, I perused the menu and saw something called Bread Pudding. Northeastern-raised, I’d never heard of it, even though I’d lived in Florida for nearly two decades. 

The name didn’t sound very appetizing, but perhaps the menu description did, or the server vouched for it, because I ordered my first bread pudding.

Instant love. I don’t remember much detail … Warm. Raisins. Some kind of syrup. Vanilla ice cream, melting. Heaping, messy spoonfuls. Coconut shavings? Maybe not.

I don’t often order dessert in restaurants, but when I do, I look for bread pudding (although I don’t always choose it). The dish has gotten fancier over the years, and has incorporated all sorts of ingredients. A classic case of turning peasant food into fine cuisine — or trying to.

I chose two restaurants that have bread pudding as a mainstay on their dessert menus: The Library in south St. Petersburg; and Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille on the St. Pete Pier. They have considerably different recipes. 

THE LIBRARY

On delightfully crisp Wednesday, I popped in around 1:30. Bonnie — my partner in life and Food Fights, as well as my driver — was ill and thus sidelined.

The restaurant, inspired by Baltimore’s George Peabody Library, is in the same complex as Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. It’s a classy place, with high ceilings, huge windows, lots of blonde wood and, of course, shelves filled with books.

Even with a sizable late lunch crowd, the room was not boomy at all. Kudos to the sound designers.

The Library has four doors, making for easy ingress/egress. The clientele did not appear to be the type to dine and dash — and, dear reader, please don’t get any ideas, despite me just giving you one. Here at RegistryTampaBay, we discourage criminal activity perpetrated on local restaurants. So yeah, I paid.

I ordered Warm Raspberry Bread Pudding ($10) and coffee ($3), and added a side of vanilla ice cream ($2).

Appearance

I’d not seen bread pudding presented like this before, although it was attractive. A small round crock held a rugged-looking brown substance. The burnt-black edges concerned me, but four plump raspberries on top was a nice touch.

Texture and Taste

My favorite bread puddings have come as a firm wedge that holds together. This was not that.

The Library’s version was rather soupy. The pieces of bread were the size and shape of croutons, and some of my bites were chewy, presumably from the burned parts. The menu description mentioned cinnamon sourdough and raspberry cream. I tasted neither (not to say they weren’t in there).

The menu also promised dark chocolate, and on that count it delivered — in spades. With a hint of bitterness, the chocolate hogged the spotlight. The tart raspberries added to the flavor intensity.

You know what helped? Vanilla ice cream. It mellowed the boldness, added a creamy quality and made the bites more friendly.

I ate it all.

DOC FORD’S RUM BAR & GRILLE

Thursday, another postcard day, only warmer. At 4 p.m., it was 75 and cloudless. This is our official Spring Break week, so the Pier was hummin’. (Quick side note: this attraction needs more shade.)

Doc Ford’s was packed, but not full. The host offered me an outdoor table in direct sun or an indoor table next to a window. I chose the latter. The waterfront place is big and loud and boomy — as expected.

I ordered Banana Bread Pudding ($8.95), vanilla ice cream included, and a cup of coffee ($2.95).

Appearance

Again, Doc Ford’s version looked different than my past bread puddings, but nevertheless enticing. A dark brown mound was hugged by two scoops of the essential ice cream and a small slice of banana.

Texture and Taste

Whether it was chocolate-infused banana bread or banana-infused chocolate bread, the combination melded together elegantly. I could readily taste both flavors. Using milk chocolate rather than dark made the bites land easily on my palette. The bread pudding itself had a spongelike texture, porous but still firm.

The ice cream did its job, and did it better as it got meltier. I’m not crazy about banana desserts, but this slice proved to be a little flavor bonus.

Ultimately, Doc Ford’s bread pudding was a successful variation on a classic dessert.

And the Winner of Our Putting Bread Pudding to the Taste Test Is …

Doc Ford’s.

An easy call.

Let me add that I really dug The Library’s atmosphere and will go there again for a full meal. If I could’ve brought my Doc Ford’s bread pudding over to The Library, all would have been bliss.

And let me also add: As much as I’ve valued my bread pudding journey, nothing has quite compared to that first time at Cracker Barrel. Some years after, I went to the location on 54th Avenue in St. Pete specifically for the bread pudding. It was no longer on the menu. Still isn’t. Sigh.

C’mon Barrel, get Crackin’.

 

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